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LAC 118 - Caribbean Society and Culture - Textbook

Embedded book from the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Text below from the Internet Archive

CHAPTER I

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE BLACK REPUBLIC.

 

The liner was hove to, awaiting daylight. Across the leaden swell Hayti lay hazy and of a soft grey, her delicate mountain crests cut sharply out against the brighten- ing sky. Soon the east was alive and glowing in deep orange and deeper red patched with livid green, a bar of angry colour shut in between the sea and a jagged lid of cloud. Four bells rang forward, and upon the stroke we were under way and steaming slowly past the dim dead shores. Between us and the distant heights ran a low bluff, bristling with scrub. No villages were visible, but here and there, through glasses, we could discern a brownish speck which might have been a solitary hut, but these did not break the sense of desolation. Nothing seemed alive save the dawn and a clean, sweet wind that blew graciously cool after the sweltering heats of the night. Thus it was that in November of last year (1899) I saw Hayti for the second time. Eighteen months had elapsed since I first steamed along under the same shores, and Hayti had lost none of her mystery and fascination. Since the wholesale massacre of the whites by order of General Dessalines, which followed immediately upon the proclamation of the Act of Independence in 1804, Hayti has been a sealed land. Very little could be told about her; for very little was known. Threaded in the circle of a hundred civilised isles, she alone has drawn a veil between herself and the rest of mankind.

A few scores of white men live in her coast towns, but of the interior even they can tell you practically nothing. The Black Republic, set between her tropical seas and virgin mountain-peaks, keeps her secrets well.

In spite of endless inquiries, until I actually landed in the island, I could gather no definite details. The ship I was travelling in passed seven times a year along the southern coast to drop the mails at the principal port of Jacmel, but although many people on board had lived half their lives on the neighbouring islands, I could glean no information respecting Hayti. I was vaguely told that the place was unhealthy, more unhealthy than Colon, and even more abnormally dirty, and that men were rather more apt to die suddenly there than elsewhere in the tropics. Even the steamer seemed to hold herself aloof. It is her custom to lie well out in the roadstead of Jacmel, and she only- waits for the return of the mail boat before putting to sea again.

There were of course various strange rumours drifting about, stories that had oozed out from the guarded silence shrouding those dark-green shores, stories of snake-worship, and poisonings, human sacrifice and cannibalism. Hayti appeared to be a stage with the curtain down, — all the world knew that the dramas of life and death were bein' played out over and over again behind that curtain, but with what curious or horrible variations from the ordinary tenor of human existence none could guess. I had read one or two books about the place, notably that by Sir Spencer St. John, who was British Minister in Hayti for a considerable period, but even his book was some years old.

Hayti the Mysterious!  Her appeal to the imagination is inevitable. Ships from Europe and America move perpetually round and along her coasts and call at her open ports, ocean cables link her to the rest of the globe, but for all these things, five miles inland you lose touch with civilisation, with the world. From the sea, her mountains, bearded with dark forests up to their wrinkled brows, scowl at you. To deny that she is picturesque is impossible ; to do so would be to acknowledge a sheer lack of imagination.

Mile after mile we slid along the coast cliff, until the fjord-like bay turned in upon itself, and there was the town of Jacmel lying inside its belt of sand. Jacmel from the sea is not unlike towns in the Colombian Republic or on the Pacific coast. The same white houses, nestling in vivid foliage, give it the same false air of coolness.

Five minutes later the quarter-boat was shouldering her way shorewards across the swell which broke in foam almost at the foot of the palms.

We shot past the reefs, and I scrambled on to the dilap- idated landing-stage among the crowd of negroes, — a crowd which as to colour represented every shade of full-bodied black. As to dress, there were degrees from gold lace down to the simplicity of a cloth with a hole in the middle for the wearer's head, supplemented by ragged trousers. Most of them carried heavy jointed clubs. The boat that had landed me put oft'; I saw the rowers slide into their stroke ; I waited till they reached the shadow of the steamer, the gangway was raised, the boat swung inboard, and the liner dived away over the glinting sea. Then I turned, stepped from the boarding, and was on Haytian earth.

I do not know precisely what I had expected, but I do know that it was not at all like the reality. Almost straight before me was a narrow street, lined with irregular buildings, something like a street of old London as you see it in pictures, save that the overhanging first floors were wooden piazzas. I walked slowly along, taking the measure of things. It was a dirty street, albeit the chief one of the chief town of southern Hayti, and the sun was scalding. The place was also acrush with human beings of African race and their donkeys. A lean dog or two basked in the alleys. There were shops, open cavernous places, with the stock-in-trade of the proprietor depending from ropes round the walls. Pavement or foot-path there was none.

The piazzas, jutting from the upper floors of the ungainly houses, were supported by pillars of wood driven into the earth; but walking under them in the shadow was an athletic exercise of four-foot leaps up and down, for some of the domiciles possessed brick thresholds leading to the supports, while others had none. There were many empty houses with smashed shutters, fire-scarred shells which seemed all the emptier for the pitiless sunlight. In Hayti they always start a revolution by firing the town.

I turned on the thought to observe the negroes in their own preserve, where they may "revolute" as they like. Most of them had dropped their work or business to look at me. Through the dust and glare wizened donkeys trotted, laden with huge bundles of guinea-grass, negresses hawked about baskets of bananas and mangoes, the street was full of men and women, screaming, gesticulating, and shouting. A bareheaded negro was blowing a tin trumpet in long, ringing blasts. The din was incredible. There were women carrying loads upon their heads ; one was half-running with a bottle balanced on a yellow bandana tied round her brows. Most of them were dressed in white, short-kilted to the knee, and nearly all wore the turban handkerchief. As for the men, some had coats, some only trousers, and some, more ragged than the rest, affected kepis with red bands. These last I discovered later were policemen. West Indian buggy. It was my first impression of the land where Black rules White. The bawl and clatter of voices, the jostling crowd, the scream of an angry man in the hot street, the few cool stores with their proprietors seated on chairs in the doorways, the ungainly wooden houses with their sprawling side-posts, the sun, the smell, the dirt : — this was Hayti.

The British Consular Agent, to whom I had brought a letter of introduction, was most kind, and oftered to put me up for the night, a proposal which I was only too glad to accept. Failing this hospitality I should have been obliged to bivouac in the open; for Jacmel, though the principal port in southern Hayti, does not boast either hotel or rest- house where one could hope for a night's shelter.

Half an hour later, as I sat at peace in the Consular office, near the door for the sake of air, a sudden clamour of voices arose outside. Then a thudding noise, — the gathering of a bare-footed crowd. We turned out into the scorching sun to where, in the centre of the arid waterside space, a fight was in progress. A policeman, buttoned up in a blue linen uniform like a butcher-boy's coat, only double-breasted, was struggling with a big-headed negro. The captive had hold of his captor's cocomacaque club, and the pair swung to and fro in a heated struggle.

The big-headed negro was already wresting away the weapon when two other policemen raced up. Smash went a cocomacaque on the big, stooping head, and a bubble of red blood rose through the short fuzz. A bellow of excitement went up from the bystanders. The prisoner turned like a dazed bull for a moment, then he broke free and fled down the street.

Experience soon taught me that similar scenes were by no means uncommon: I also learnt to sympathise with the frantic resistance of the prisoners.

The business in Jacmel is almost entirely in the hands of the small foreign element. The RepubUcan Government distrusts and dislikes the outlander, but it cannot get on without him. On sufferance therefore he remains, but any projects as to opening up the country, prospecting or obtaining concessions, are blocked in one way or another. Either the Government plants its foot firmly and refuses permission point-blank, or if expediency suggests another course, negotiations are begun, which are later on so craftily manipulated that the white man finds himself finally left in the lurch, saddled with a hopelessly bad bargain.

Again, no foreigner can legally own land in the island, but so far as private houses in the coast towns are concerned, this law has been circumvented at various times.

There are in the town and district about 500 potential soldiers, of whom no fewer than 200 are generals. A general, as he is known in Hayti, must be spelt with a big G. The general commanding this province is one of the strong men of the country. He can neither read nor write, and belongs to the lowest strata, yet he was one of the great forces in the last revolution. General Johannis Meri- sier cannot sign documents, but by way of making his mark he adds the impress of his signet ring. What one man writes for him he gets another man to read, thus securing himself against deception. In person he is of the ultra- negro type, and in his hands lies the power of life and death.

Towards evening I went for a ride about the surrounding country ; there were some pretty-looking villas half hidden in green dotted about the outskirts of the town. Returning I passed by the arsenal under the walls of which public executions take place. Not so long ago two criminals, a man and a boy of fourteen (the latter had split open the paternal skull with a hatchet) were condemned to be shot. Upon the moment of firing a Roman Catholic priest went up to the boy and asked him if he repented of his crime. The boy said "No" — he would do it again if he had the chance.

"If you repent you will be reprieved."

"I do not repent."

The priest withdrew, and the twenty assorted firearms spoke. The man fell upon his knees, but the boy was untouched. The volley rang out again. No result. Another volley. The bleeding man pitched forward dead, but the boy stood in the aching sunlight, still unhurt.

A general rode up, and borrowing a cocomacaque from a bystander, beat the soldiers over the head for their bungling. He swore that unless the next attempt took effect, the men themselves should be shot. A second later, the boy fell riddled with bullets. Then the drums beat, for the justice of the Republic was satisfied. On this occasion it was said that the soldiers had pity on the youth of the boy, and purposely shot wide, each man hoping that his comrade's bullet might do the deed. But it was a cruel mercy.

Darkness had come on by the time I recrossed the market-place. The scene was weird. Among the ruinous wooden booths a few fluttering flames cut into the blackness of the night, and from the gloom around came the inde- scribable screeching babble of negro voices. Here and there in the dim light I saw pale-palmed hands twisting in gesticulation, or wide mouths that flashed white teeth over slips of sugar-cane. And so the busy unseen night-life, which the dark-skin loves, went on under the dense sky.